By the summer of 1949, Vic Johnson‘s left arm had taken him from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to baseball’s promised land three times, twice to Boston and once to Cleveland, and he wanted to go back. He’d beaten the New York Yankees, played with Bobby Doer and Bob Feller and Joe Cronin, and faced Phil Rizzuto and Joe DiMaggio and Lou Boudreau. That’s why he was still pitching in the minor leagues four years after the end of World War II. But a partial season spent in the Southeastern League with the Anniston Rams became his nadir, if not on the field, then off it.
“I was still under contract to Boston and I hated to give it up,” Johnson told the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram in 1998. “But I didn’t want to go back to a bus league — I had enough of that in the Northern League.”
So he retired. The Rams — who traveled to road games in a refurbished bus — literally ended his eight-year professional career.
Plus, the ’49 Rams were rarely good and gave him little incentive to return. They finished 64-74, fifth in the SEL, cycled through two managers and set the stage for the franchise’s death-knell season the following summer. It was an odd collection of players: two pitchers (Woody Rich and Johnson) had Major League experience; shortstop Bobby Kline would make the show in the early 1950s. Pitcher Hugh Sooter threw a no-hitter that July.
Johnson went 12-8 with a 3.48 ERA and created quite a trio with Rich, who won 10 games, and Ray Woodward, who led Anniston with 14 wins. Had he spent the entire season with the Rams — he came from Class AA Oklahoma City in late May — he might have neared his career-best total for wins (18 at Eau Claire in 1942, his first pro season).
His Rams debut fizzled when he allowed 12 hits and walked four in a 7-4 loss to Gadsden. But on June 1 against Vicksburg, Johnson’s signature curve dazzled in a 3-2 pitchers’ duel win. Not only did Johnson fan eight and scatter nine hits, he also recorded the game-winning sacrifice bunt in the 9th inning. Harry Sherman, sports editor of The Anniston Star newspaper, wrote that Johnson had become a “hero in Ram town,” and then he added this, hyperbole be damned, though he really shouldn’t have:
“The veteran Ram left-hander and the young mound artist from Mississippi (Archie Hayes) staged a battle of goose eggs practically all of the way in a game that will go down in the books as one of the best exhibitions of baseball ever seen at Johnston Field. Seldom before have baseball fans anywhere seen a real pitchers’ battle with a climax such as last night’s contest.”
Long before his few months in Anniston, Johnson showed Major League scouts that he was worth at least a second look. He spent only one year — 1942, with Eau Claire of the dreaded Northern League — in a lower-level league until he played for the Class B Rams. In 1943 he played for Class A Scranton and Class AA Louisville, which is where he was slated the following season. But with the war siphoning off men and depleting MLB rosters — Johnson’s draft classification was 4-F, not fit for military service, because of a hearing defect — the Red Sox promoted him to Boston in early May.
His former manager in Louisville, Bill Burwell, was confident that the lefty could survive in the American League. “Victor would have won at least four of the games which were charged against him as defeats (he was 6-12 at Louisville in ’43) if it had not been for poor run support,” Burwell told the Boston Globe during spring training. “He is pretty slight right now, weighing only 161 pounds, but he is a six-footer who should add plenty of weight within the next two years. He has lots of courage, is highly intelligent, and is a young man who eventually should be of value to the club.”
Johnson’s debut and first MLB start came before a sparse crowd at Fenway Park on May 3 against Washington. He gave up three earned runs and six hits in 2 2/3 innings but didn’t get the win in the Red Sox’s 11-10 victory. In June Boston sent him back to Louisville, but his mediocre MLB stint (0-3 record, 6.26 ERA) didn’t keep him from playing all of the final war season, 1945, with the Sox.
It went fairly well — and not only because he befriended Ted Williams. He posted a 6-4 record with a 4.01 ERA in 26 appearances (nine starts). He shut out the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium; he had a scoreless streak against the Yankees that lasted 16 2/3 innings over two games; but he walked roughly twice as many hitters than he struck out. “Vic was not a fastball pitcher,” Howie Bullock, one of Johnson’s minor-league teammates, told the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram in 2005. “He was a control pitcher. He had a curve and sinker that came in to a right-hand batter.”
Those middling statistics — too many walks, erratic results — led the Red Sox to trade Johnson to pitching-poor Cleveland that December. That, however, didn’t go well. He made only nine appearances with the Indians, posting an 0-1 record and a bloated 9.22 ERA, and was sent June 26 to Baltimore of the International League, where he pitched sparingly. He then was shipped to Nashville of the Southern League, where he didn’t gain traction, and then to his fourth team of the season — New Orleans.
Johnson never again pitched in the Major Leagues.
Two full seasons and a portion of a third in Oklahoma City (where he tossed a no-hitter in 1948) brought him to Anniston, where his talent played well but the experience didn’t satisfy his personal desires. Back to Eau Claire he went, where he worked in youth and YMCA sports until he retired.
“I always tell people I never worked a day in my life,” he told the Eau Claire newspaper in 2003. “I was always in sports.” His hometown even honors him today with a plaque at a local park that commemorates his 2009 induction into the Eau Claire Baseball Hall of Fame.
Vic Johnson died in 2005 at the age of 84. He’s buried in Eau Claire.
Vic Johnson’s baseball questionnaire and his World War II draft registration card. (Ancestry.com)